Neil Gaiman gets ready to talk strange imaginings with fans and newbies alike as Montreal hosts the 67th World Sci-Fi Convention
In a time when most of us have at least one piece of high-tech gadgetry in our pockets, purses or firmly glued to our ears, it’s shocking that science fiction doesn’t get more cred. Because sci-fi totally called all this stuff way back when people were still writing heartfelt letters without keystroke-and-acronym emotional shortcuts. (That must’ve sucked, LOL.) But the uncanny truth about sci-fi is that though some of its wacked-out ideas, places and faces may seem unfamiliar, it’s all ultimately us, ultimately human.
Author Neil Gaiman (Coraline, American Gods, Stardust, The Sandman series and so much more) has been letting his imagination run well away from reality for a few decades now, but it always comes back home. Gaiman’s imagined worlds, as twisted as they can be, are always recognizable, their strangeness opens a window to commonalities and a mirror to our everyday lives.
"G.K. Chesterton, the U.K. sci-fi writer, said that you can show people the world they know by turning it 45 degrees," says British-born-and-raised Gaiman (who primarily lives in the U.S. these days), happily reflecting. "The best way to see your own home is coming back from a vacation – when you return, everything seems new. A world you’re so familiar with you see for the first time again, and it makes sense and is fresh. For me, it’s very true that writing about things that are not is a wonderful, refreshing and easy way to write about things that are. Because once you’re doing that, you have a whole world that you’re making new and fresh and, with any luck, magical."
Circles of fame
Gaiman prolifically writes best-selling, award-winning, extremely compelling novels, comic books and graphic novels, children’s books, film scripts and plays, poems, stories and songs, and took up blogging long before we started calling it that (his online writing is still a journal, regularly updated with personal musings and anecdotes, responses to readers and, of course, his literary life). It’s no wonder strangers are starting to recognize him on the street.
"There’s definitely something odd going on," says Gaiman, laughing, openly wondering. "The only reason I say that is because having been somebody who for the last 15 to 20 years as somebody whose name was known and used and so on, now I’m having to cope with having a famous face, which I’ve never had before – I have the same face that went on The Colbert Report for defending my honour for having won the Newbery." For a man known for conjuring up dark and twisted characters who live in equally eerie worlds, winning the top prize for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children (he won this year for The Graveyard Book) could be seen as a bit of a setback to his reputation.
But anyone who’s seen Gaiman’s novel-turned-3D-stereoscopic-film Coraline knows he still seeks to disturb. In the good way.
So maybe it’s not so strange that Gaiman started his writing career in the ’80s with non-fiction and journalism, where double-takes at the often outrageous, disquieting truth come a dime a dozen. By 1989, his talks with friend and fellow writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) had turned into the long-running and award-winning The Sandman comic book series, notable for not only its stories and detailed artwork, but for its unconventional cover art by Gaiman’s long-time friend Dave McKean. The series, which began with a character named Morpheus, both a man and a dream-state of mind, opened up the world of comic books to a wider audience – including an unprecedented number of female fans – and helped elevate certain perceptions of the comic book from teenage pursuit to literature.
Fanning the fans
This week’s 67th World Science-Fiction Convention, titled Anticipation, marks Gaiman’s first time in Montreal specifically to do readings and sign books, but he’s familiar with at least one facet of our identity: winter. "After finishing American Gods, I decided that I needed to do something to reward myself. I was somewhere warm when I decided this, so when I learned that there would be an ice hotel in Quebec at that time , I thought, well obviously I should do that. It was definitely one of those things that seem to make an incredible amount of sense when you decide to do it at midnight in a warm room, but there I was getting off the plane in a blizzard, thinking, What the hell am I doing?" It didn’t put him off, though, and he visited Montreal in late January of this year for the launch of Coraline and to meet the film’s local voice actors.
The World Science-Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, is the yearly convention of the World Science Fiction Society, responsible as a whole for the prestigious Hugo Awards. Far from being a mysterious organization of antiquated rules and complicated handshakes, the WSFS runs by participatory democratic principles and its membership comprises all registrants of each year’s Worldcon. Even though Gaiman is the guest of honour this year (alongside Quebec’s own Elisabeth Vonarburg, former editor of the oldest French science fiction and fantasy magazine in the world, Solaris, and author of numerous award-winning books and short stories), he’s still just another member. And just another fan too.
"I’m always open to meeting fans," says Gaiman. "I started out as a fan, so it was always straightforward to me – even though there’s some kind of difference of degree, whether you’re signing or are the person getting the signature, fundamentally it’s all the same: people who love books, films, getting together and celebrating that love and celebrating that delight in storytelling and the imagination. Fandom comes from love – people who are passionate about anything. I would much rather meet and interact and delight in those people than I would with people who are blasé about things."
The parametres of Worldcon – location, discussion topics, criteria for the Hugo Awards and more – change each year to reflect our shifting world and science fiction’s unique reflections of it. "The definition of science fiction depends on how you want to define your affection," says Gaiman. "My favourite definition of science fiction, from when I was 23 and writing a book of quotes about science-fiction books and movies, was that science fiction is anything I’m pointing at and saying, ‘That’s science fiction.’ But the truth is it exists for lovers of, obviously, the Hugos, for one, and if you could go back in time and rename science fiction, people would. It’s something that celebrates the imagination and imaginative fiction, and as someone who revels and delights in the imagination, I am absolutely proud to line up with the people who have been previous guests of honour at Worldcon."
For a schedule of Neil Gaiman’s appearances at the World Sci-Fi Convention, Aug. 6-10, see anticipationsf.ca
Gaiman’s online journal, full bibliography and more can be found at www.neilgaiman.com